Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Leaders Can Avoid Burnout by Taking Care of Themselves

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 10, 2017 6 min read
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When business leaders burn out, the business can fail. When educational leaders burn out, students can fail. The cost of burnout is high. As we continue to search for what affects student achievement consider the effect of leaders who are running on empty. Leaders who are healthy, energized, interested, fulfilled, focused, smart and compassionate have a similar affect upon the organization. They fuel the organization when leaders who are burned out drain it.

A recent Bloomberg.com article caught our attention. The headline was “The $100,000. Anti-Burnout Program for CEO’s

Johnson & Johnson thinks it has the answer to executive burnout. All it takes is a physiologist, a dietitian, an executive coach, and $100,000 in special services... “Leaders aren’t a set of skills and tools. They’re a human being,” said Lowinn Kibbey, the head of Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute, which developed the program. “Many of these leaders arrive in these roles without being equipped with how to stay healthy and resilient.”

Educational leaders are public servants. There is little room in public budgets (or in public acceptance) for the care of those who are paid with public funds. Yet, the life price to be paid for being the CEO and the school leader can be similar. Tremendous responsibility, little tolerance for error and stress is part of the work.

There is acknowledgement in the private sector that leadership produces stress and can result in burn-out. Some are willing to invest in leaders to keep their companies healthy. That is not the reality in public sector world. But, what is possible ... and necessary ... is for educators to take care of themselves.

Sources of Leadership Stress

It is society in relationship with each one’s personal capacities that must be understood in order to understand the nature or the source of burn-out or emptiness. The population of the United States has grown from 76 million at the beginning of the 20th century to over 300 million today. The increased population stresses systems. It calls for greater communication, more housing, more food, more medical attention, more clothes, more cars, larger schools, more, bigger, better. Our society has become more mobile. Where one lives is more likely connected to where one makes a living than to where other family members live, sometimes leaving people more isolated without the traditional support system of the family. Whether a family moves, or remains in one home or town, is the choice of the parent and also affects the child. Putnam (1996) noted the increased mobility of American society has reduced the frequency of social engagement.

Beyond the values of and experiences with our families, we are products of the times in which we live. Putnam (1995) reported that people born between 1910 and 1940 are more involved in community affairs than those born more recently. Putnam (1996) also found that mobility has an affect on social engagement. The longer one lives in one place, the more likely they are to become involved in their community. This societal mobility, in some ways a boon, also creates stressors, unseen. Community involvement provided comfort in familiarity and personal investment. Mobility results in strangers as neighbors.

In this century, more parents are working, leaving more children entering daycare, beginning at younger ages, leaving working parents with the stress of early separation and the financial burden of paying for quality childcare. The cost of living has risen, yet for many, income has not. The rise in disposable income that occurred in the last century has diminished in this one.

Technology has reached into our professional and personal lives alike. The speed of communication and the draw to social media and gaming can provide yet another set of stressors. The conditions of our society place us in a new and stressful time. This is a different time, for example, than from the post second world war, pre-women’s liberation world in which the rise of the suburbs, the job market was still mostly filled by men, women would stay home to raise the family, and the economy made it possible. But times and the economy have changed.

Now, the extraordinary pace and race, and the glut of incoming and every-changing information, places demands on leaders that have taken on a 21st century tinge. With ever growing responsibilities to raise standards, change teaching and learning practices, attract good teachers, develop all teachers, meet the needs of all students, create and maintain safe and inclusive environments that include physical safety as well as a safe environment where risk taking is encouraged and supported, all with diminishing resources, leaders find themselves running on fumes. Although surrounded by people, the leader can feel isolated. This isolation and emptiness endangers the success of today’s leaders and of their schools.

For many educators, a kind of weariness or wariness has set in as expectations for performance--their own as well as their students'--sometimes far exceed well-intentioned effort. This dissonance in the education profession makes leadership a risky business. Effective and well-intentioned leaders must learn to struggle productively with their ensuing wounds. It makes sense that people who know themselves and who can relate genuinely to others by avoiding self-protective roles have a better chance of succeeding in leadership, especially today. Leaders who strive to acknowledge all sides of themselves and who allow all sides of themselves to be acknowledged will increase their capacity to lead in difficult times (Ackerman, R.H. & Maslin-Ostrowski, P ).

Now, technology and its use in teaching and learning can, itself, be stress producing for a leader. Fear of the tool and hesitancy to use it fully is not uncommon. Not learning how to maximize the tool, yet encouraging its use in the classroom separates the leader from all other learners in the organization, places the leader in a “do as I say” position rather than “do as I do” and that diminishes trust. Yet,

...the ubiquity of technology outside schools changes the dynamic for the delivery and mastery of content knowledge. At the same time, organizational models are changing from bureaucratic command and control hierarchies to models that support the new pedagogies, focused on mastery of a dynamic learning process (Fullan, M.).

Leaders, Take Care

The answer to all of this is to step aside every now and then. Take good care of yourself. Find what replenishes you and preserve time for it. Family, exercise, reading, religion, good food, fun, and relaxation are all parts of a healthy lifestyle. Make time. Take good care. Find a partner, a colleague or even a pet to motivate you and demand you pay attention when you begin to falter. Not only is it good for the leader and for his/her organization, we posit, the children will benefit. Worth it, don’t you think?

Putnam, R. D. (1996). Tuning in, tuning out: The strange disappearance of social capital in America. PS, Political Science & Politics, 28(4), 664-664. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/224969063?accountid=13645

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by mindscanner courtesy of 123rf

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